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Lakers legend Tex Winter needs to be encircled with care

BILL PLASCHKE

The inventor of the 'triangle' is recovering from a stroke and struggling to adapt and re-learn things. Basketball helps his spirits.

July 15, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

You never saw it. The Lakers never ran it. An 87-year-old stroke victim conceived it.

But amid all the intricate designs concocted by the NBA champions during their postseason run, perhaps no single play was more important.

It appeared not in the glitz of Staples Center, but in a quiet assisted living apartment home in Wilsonville, Ore.

While the Lakers were celebrating their Finals victory over the Orlando Magic, basketball consultant Tex Winter was fighting to speak the words "Orlando" and "Magic."

Having suffering a stroke earlier in the playoffs, Winter could barely talk or comprehend. It was difficult to write, difficult to gesture, one of the greatest teachers in basketball history laboring to learn the basics of living.

His team had won, but Winters was still fighting, the frustration growing each day, until finally his son Chris had an idea.

"OK, Dad," Chris said, sticking a piece of paper in front of his father's hand. . . . "Draw a play."

Tex looked down. He thought for a second. He slowly put pen to paper.

And there it was.

The triangle.

"Out of nowhere, there it was, the offense, drawn perfectly, completely understandable, legible enough for the players to run it," Chris said. "I was really surprised. And I wasn't surprised at all."

Yeah, Tex is still with us.

The guy who designed the offense that has led to four Lakers' NBA championships may have disappeared, but he's not gone.

Tex Winter's calming, white-haired presence may never again be seen sitting behind Phil Jackson on the Lakers' bench.

He may never again be able to speak without assistance or live without care.

His sons say he is battling boredom and depression while facing the most difficult climb of his life.

But the force is still with us, one of the greatest coaches in basketball history still trying to coach from a living room chair in an apartment he shares with his Alzheimer's-stricken wife, Nancy.

"He's still a coach," said Russ, another of Winters' three sons. "It may not always seem like it on the outside, but there's still a coach in there."

Take the first game Winter watched after suffering his stroke in late April.

He was essentially immobile in a chair in front of a television set, watching the Lakers losing to the Houston Rockets, when son Chris ripped one of the Lakers for not hustling.

Out of nowhere, the coach appeared.

"Get off his back, he's doing the best he can!" Winter shouted. "You know, this game isn't as easy as it looks!"

It was one of the first complex sentences Winter had strung together since he had been stricken. His sons have been shaking their heads about it ever since.

"He has always been a coach; he doesn't know how to do anything else, and I guess that's how it's always going to be," Russ said.

Jackson wasn't the only one who won his 10th ring on that Sunday night in Orlando, remember.

Winter also won his 10th, each one as Jackson's offense architect and sideline conscience.

"He calmly called himself, 'the Insultant' rather than 'the Consultant,' " Jackson told reporters earlier this summer.

It was Winter who was never afraid to challenge Kobe Bryant. It was Winter who would stare down Jackson.

Ultimately, it was Winter who finally benched himself, requesting that he be downgraded from assistant coach to consultant during recent years because of health battles.

But he was still there for home games, still there for practices, still around to needle and nudge and serve as a constant touchstone for the NBA's most successful offense.

Imagine today's airline pilots being counseled by the Wright brothers. That was Winter with the Lakers, living history, more amazing by the year.

"I remember giving him brochures on vacation spots, and wondering if he would ever retire and travel, and once he even said he would," Russ said. "But then the next year, he was back with the Lakers. Always, he was back with the Lakers."

And the Lakers always had his back, employing him long after any other organization would hand out regular paychecks to someone his age.

After Winter was stricken during the first-round series against the Utah Jazz, some fans might have forgotten about him, but the Lakers never did.

Their team doctors helped direct the start of his care. Mitch Kupchak, the Lakers' general manager, immediately offered all other team services. Several members of the front office telephoned Winter even though he couldn't really talk.

"The Lakers really are a family, we have seen every aspect of that," Chris said. "They have been unbelievable in their care for my father."

The attention was needed, as Winter's new journey is a difficult one. Because he had no other interests but basketball, his days are sometimes long and tedious. Because it appears he will never coach basketball again, he is constantly fighting depression.

"I wish I could tell you this was a totally upbeat story, but it's not, it's tough," Russ said. "Sometimes my father feels like he's an old man who doesn't have time to learn to talk again."

Basketball brings him back.

Winter brightened considerably when Jackson recently visited on his way to his summer home in Montana. In typical Jackson fashion, it wasn't announced, and none of Winter's sons were there, just Tex and Phil.

Then came the phone call from Kupchak that really charged up the coach, a reminder that he had to get well soon so he could come to Los Angeles in November and pick up his championship ring.

"He really seems eager to make that happen," said Brian, another son. "That's something we're planning on."

The coach, it seems, just needs a little coaching. His family provided a mailing address: 32100 SW French Prairie Road, Number 228, Wilsonville, Ore., 97070.

After Tex Winter blessed our town with the triangle, perhaps it's time for us to teach him about the full circle.

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

twitter.com/billplaschke

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